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Latin 101: A Brief History of Merengue

by Rachel Devitt

Latin 101: A Brief History of Merengue

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A brief history of merengue is a pretty laughable idea, really. After all, the Caribbean genre has been around possibly since the 1840s (and maybe even longer -- its exact origins are unknown). Its incarnations have included maligned rural folk genre, dictator-approved national treasure and commercial pop music -- and that's without even getting into subgenres and offshoots like merenhouse (merengue + house beats) or merengue estilo yanqui (literally, Yankee-style merengue). But we're going to try to break it down anyway:

  • Though its roots can be found throughout the Caribbean, merengue has its strongest ties to the Dominican Republic.

  • Early merengue (merengue típico) was a rural Afro-Caribbean folk style played on the two-headed tambora drum, stringed instruments like guitar or cuatro, and a güira (which gives the rhythm its distinctive shuffle).

  • In the 1870s, an accordion was added. These early iterations were associated with working-class communities and often addressed politically or sexually risqué topics.

  • In the 1930s, dictator Rafael Trujillo decided to make merengue a national symbol of Dominican culture. He put the music on the radio, got bands under his thumb and even commissioned merengue songs about his government.

  • During this period, a split developed between merengue típico and the more urban merengue de orquesta, which replaced accordions with saxophones and trumpets and adopted a faster pace. (Merengue típico was also still evolving: Its "godfather," Tatico Henríquez, had added electric guitar to the mix.)

  • Merengue also took off among diasporic Dominicans in New York and other locales.

  • After the fall of Trujillo, orquesta-style merengue even began to supplant salsa as the Latin dance music, thanks to artists like Juan Luis Guerra and "queen of merengue" Milly Quezada.

  • In the '80s, '90s and '00s, merengue was synonymous with big pop business -- even as innovators were pairing it with house beats, hip-hop, reggaeton and more.

Today, merengue has lost a little ground to its younger, hipper cousin, bachata. But that stomping, shuffling beat is still very much going strong, more than 150 years after it was first heard. One surefire secret to its longevity? From típico to merenhouse, this is music that makes you want to dance. After all, as the saying goes, if you can walk, you can merengue! So get a move on to our merengue primer, which stretches from early accordion kings like Francisco Ulloa to hip-hop-fueled trend-setters like Limi-T 21.

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